Monthly Archives: February, 2016

Remembering A.R. Ammons

A. R. Ammons 1926-2001

A. R. Ammons
1926-2001Fifteen years ago today, America lost one of its greatest modern poets. A. R. Ammons, a humble man from rural North Carolina,  started writing poetry while serving aboard a Navy Destroyer in the South Pacific in WWII.

Fifteen years ago today, America lost one of its greatest modern poets. A. R. Ammons, a humble man from rural North Carolina, started writing poetry while serving aboard a Navy Destroyer in the South Pacific in WWII.

His level, conversational style and wry sensibility make his poems accessible and contemporary.  His subject matter varies, and to my delight, he often poetizes the mundane.

The night before last, I found myself in a beer joint conversation with some writer friends––one a Fitbit devotee, another about to embark on an austere Dr. Oz regime. (I was  on my humdrum soapbox for moderation.) Had A.R. Ammons been with us, he might have thrown in a stanza of Aubade. (Bosh and Flapdoodle, 2006).

Here’s to A.R. Ammons, harbingers of swimsuit season, and everyday life!

Aubade

They say, lose weight, change your lifestyle:
that’s, take the life out of your style and

the style out of your life: give up fats,
give up sweets, chew rabbit greens, raw: and

how about carrots: raw: also, wear your
hipbones out walking. We were designed for

times when breakfast was not always there, and
you had to walk a mile, maybe, for your first

berry or you had to chip off a flint before
you could dig up a root: and there were

times when like going off to a weight reduction
center you had a belly full of nothing: easy

to be skinny digesting bark: but here now at
the breakfast buffet or lavish brunch you’re

trapped between resistance and getting your
money’s worth and the net gain from that

transaction is about one pound more: hunting
and gathering is a better lifestyle than

resisting: resisting works up your nerves
not your appetite (already substantial in the

wild) and burns up fewer calories than the
activity arising from hunger pangs: all in

all this is a praise for modern life––who
wants to pick the subrealities from his teeth

every minute­––but all this is just not what
we were designed for, bad as it was: any way

I go now I feel I’m going against nature, when
I feel so free with the ways and means, the

dynamics, the essentialities honed out clearly
from millions of years: sometimes when I say

“you” in my poems and appear to be addressing
the lord above, I’m personifying the contours

of the onhigh, the ways by which the world
works, however hard to see: for the onhigh

is every time the on low, too, and in the
middle: one lifts up one’s voice to the

lineations of singing and sings, in effect,
you, you are the one, the center, it is around

you that the comings and goings gather, you
are the before and after, the around and

through: in all your motions you are ever
still, constant as motion itself: there with

you we abide, abide the changes, abide the
dissolutions and  recommencement

of our very selves, abide in your abiding: but, of course
I don’t mean “you” as anyone in particular

but I mean the center of motions millions of
years have taught us to seek: now, with

space travel and gene therapy that “you” has
moved out of the woods and rocks and streams

and traveled on out so far in space that it
rounds the whole and is, in a way, nowhere to

be found or congratulated, and so what is out
there dwells in our heads now as a bit of

yearning, maybe vestigial, and it is a yearning
like painful sweetness, a nearly reachable

presence that nearly feels like love, something
we can put aside as we get up to rustle up a

little breakfast or contemplate a little
weight loss, or gladden the morning by getting

off to work . . .

                            — A. R. Ammons

Americans and the Love of Romantic Comedy

Wedding Singer

I am a sucker for romantic comedies. I am not alone. Americans have loved romantic film comedies for just short of 100 years now with an unparalleled degree of passion and even zealotry. I am a zealot. What else could explain my love of The Wedding Singer? OK, that’s a cheap shot at the film just for a rhetorical joke. I regret it already, so I will confess a simple fact: I love The Wedding Singer and without hesitation will defend it as Adam Sandler’s best comic performance. OK, even as I type this I realize that such an assertion could be taken ironically or as a shot at Sandler. Once such jokes start, they are hard to stop. The truth is simple, though: I will watch The Wedding Singer and enjoy it any chance I get. The Steve Buscemi cameo alone makes it time well spent. Take a moment with it: Steve Buscemi in The Wedding Singer

Back to the popularity of romantic comedy. Go ahead and do a Google search for “popularity of romantic comedies”: 7,280,000 hits. That is a scientifically irrefutable testament to their cultural centrality. Just to seal the point with a point of comparison, a control group of sort for popularity: type in “popularity of Taylor Swift” and you will get 592,000 hits. That’s a large response but paltry compared to the rom-com, even though Swift’s music is in its own way a celebrant of romantic comedy. One more, in case you are not convinced: type in “popularity of Kanye West”: 545,000 (and trending downward), another win for Taylor Swift! But we are way off the point that I want to make here, which is this: romantic film comedies are crucial to the survival of the United States.

And they are in trouble.

The popularity, though many academics pretend not to understand it, is quite simple. The formula affirms basic human desires for–get this–happiness. Imagine that. This desire is especially central American culture since we inculcate the core aspiration (expectation) of happiness in our founding political and social ideology: the pursuit of happiness as an essential right. The romantic comedy simply affirms that happiness can be attained via love balanced with good-hearted laughter. The combination is perfect and whereas it leads to repetition and convention, so does life itself. Have you noticed?

We remain keenly interested in artistic expressions that celebrate love and laughter. The wonderful minds at Cracked have given us a fine discussion on the romantic comedy as form and cultural statement. The formula is indeed vulnerable to parody and mockery. Here is one of the most astute skewering of romantic comedy formula that also, in its own way, affirms the human desire it offers audiences: from Cracked, After Hours, on rom-com formula

The romantic comedy as an art form is yet again under attack. Plenty of people dismiss the predictable formula and the sheer repetitiveness, and, supposed schmaltz of romantic comedy films. That has always been the case, even as multitudes of moviegoers have supported that formula generation after generations.

No other form of popular artistic expression comes close to capturing the absurd vagaries of life on this planet while also maintaining a desire among its audience to continue living and laughing. Cynical ironists, however remarkably clever, always ignore the second but crucial component of the preceding point: humans generally want to be happy on some level. A human willingness to observe the “absurd vagaries of life,” as I put it, rarely comes with any desire to stop believing in the potential to be happy. Thus a paradox, of sorts. On the one hand, there is the human recognition of the Void (the stuff of nihilism, postmodernism, and The Family Guy); on the other hand, there is the human belief in two related expressions that reject the implications of that recognition: love and laughter. Romantic comedies, as the name impliles, bring those two wonderful human aspirations together. In the United States, that combination resonates like no other, and we cannot lose that advantage.

Only one definitive component of American cultural identity really matters: the push to pursue happiness. All else comes from that cultural imperative, all of our comedy and all of our romantic dreams. It is farce and inspiration all wrapped together. And the energy built from that vortex of tension makes for a vibrant comedic landscape. But American humor must always depend on the expectation of romantic celebration that we will live happily ever after. If that bothers you, go look in a mirror and say, “I am a tedious bore,” and leave romantic comedies alone.

Continue reading →

Well Trouble’s A Bubble: Dick Van Dyke at 90

Dick-Van-Dyke-90-flashmob-permission-Nicola-Buck-social-links-required

Photo by Nicola Buck

Dick Van Dyke celebrated his 90th birthday this past December 13, the way most nonagenarians do – by participating in a flash mob. Fitting for a man whose career is peppered with characters of youthful, childlike vision. In his impressive, 70-plus-year career he’s amassed five Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy.

Van Dyke got his start on radio and quickly moved to the stage. In 1959 he snagged the lead in Bye Bye Birdie, a role he reprised for the 1963 film. Other films followed including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Divorce American Style, but it was the 1964 Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins that gave birth to his most remembered film roll, as Bert the chimney sweep. Continue reading →

Colonel Blimp

Colonel Blimp is a pompous character created by British cartoonist David Low.  Entering the English language in 1937, by definition, a “Colonel Blimp” or just “Blimp” is an ultra-conservative, pompous individual.  It can also be used as an adjective to describe what someone has said as in, “I can’t believe he made that Colonel Blimp statement.”

Colonel Blimp is a bald, red-faced, mustachioed, man with considerable girth.  In fact, his surname is derived from the shape of his body.  And, like the dirigible, both the blimp and Colonel Blimp are full of hot air.

The word “blimp” first came into existence when dirigible airships were first produced.  The word is onomatopoetic in that it is the sound that is made when the gasbag is thumped with the thumb; no word on whether the same can be said for thumping the colonel.  In literature, if “blimp” is spelled in the lower case, it refers to the airship; if it is capitalized, it refers to the colonel.

Colonel Blimp

Typically, Colonel Blimp is depicted in a spa or gym as the character is a part of the leisure class in Britain.   Thus, it is assumed that when he makes pronouncements about how aggressive the British military should be, readers know that neither he nor his offspring will have to fight those battles.  He is also depicted as nearly naked which coincides with the uninhibited nature of his wisdom.  And, like his physique, his viewpoints can be ugly.

Colonel Blimps have existed as long as humanity.  That may be why the term has at least 44 synonyms.  In the United States we are dealing with our own 21st century Colonel Blimp as we watch our electoral catastrophe spiral out of control.  And while our Colonel Blimp makes for great sound bites and outstanding political cartoons, it would probably be better for our country if the politicians were more responsible, and the cartoonists had to look elsewhere for fodder.

Trump 2016

This cartoon by Bill Bramhall suggests that after 80 years, nothing really changes.

The Comedy of the Black Republican

While I am currently working on political ideology on entertainment television in the 1970s, I do enjoy watching more contemporary television as well. Often, however, I am struck by how apolitical network television entertainment today is compared to the 1970s. In fact, the 1970s constitute a very peculiar period in network television. Especially comedies reveled in a new politically relevant humor, and the ratings ensured them leeway. But by the 1980s, the proliferation and weight of a wide array of interest groups had hampered the comedic freedom. Modern Family recently spent a story arch on Claire (Julie Bowen), one of the main characters, running for city council. Yet, her partisan alignment was never identified. This tactic is quite common in an industry that strives for as wide an audience as possible. There are few, if any, upsides in offending parts of your audience with partisan identification.

This is why I was so surprised to come across an episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish revolving entirely around the idea of the Black Republican. The episode starts with Dre (Anthony Anderson) stipulating facts of life, including:

 “Black people aren’t Republicans, we just aren’t. We vote for Democrats. And it’s not just an Obama thing […] black people also overwhelmingly backed this guy [photo of Dukakis in a tank], this guy [photo of Al Gore kissing Hillary Clinton], hell 91% of black people voted for this guy [photo of Walter Mondale holding boxing gloves]. Fact: 91% of Walter Mondale’s family didn’t vote for Walter Mondale. Sure, the other side may trot out a token black face every now and again, but the fact of the matter is being a black Republican is something we just don’t do.”

The show often deals with perceived cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans, Continue reading →

In the Archives: Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate” (1879)

Tracy Wuster

To “celebrate” the Iowa Caucuses, we present Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate.”  In light of the sometimes depressing spectacle of the primary season, it is nice to see Twain’s refreshing candor.  Here it is, from June 1879:

Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens politics president Obama RomneyI have pretty much rkde up my mind to run for president. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me, I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the Battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer, because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be, “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

Engraving based on an 1879 photograph.